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May 3, 2006
A while back I was asked to write a radio campaign for one of our clients. I love radio, I really do. You can go places in radio that you just can't get to in any other medium. But if you ask me if I like writing it, I would probably say I like "having written." Stick with me here, this is going to make sense in a minute.


I presented three different directions to this particular client and there was one that they fell in love with. And I have to admit, even though I’ve been doing this over 20 years, it’s still an unbelievable thrill to have a client jumping up on a table and pumping their fist at the end of a presentation. Er, well, I'm sure that's what they were doing at the other end of the conference call.

So the next day the account guy comes in my office and tells me the client wanted to do a little “tweaking” to my scripts. Using the same logic, you could also say that the made guys did a little “tweaking” to Tommy at the end of Goodfellas. There was so much client scribble on these pages that I couldn't even make out what I had originally written. I can, in fact, recall the one sentence that they left untouched: "SFX: RESTAURANT AMBIANCE"

In the past I've always taken a lot of pride in the fact that I could write my way out of just about anything. The client would make a suggestion and I’d take it upon myself to write something better. Which is my job, after all. I also keep my scripts short so I can give the actors a little room to play. But this was one of those clients who was fond of saying things like, "Hey, I'm paying for all that white space, can we fill it in?"

Normally when faced with something like this I take the Hyman Roth approach: "I wasn't angry; I knew Moe - I knew he was head-strong, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we've chosen!" (That's Godfather II, for those of you under 40.)

But this was radio. It was something I had written, rewritten and rewritten again. And I actually happened to like what I wrote. (Is that so wrong?) So I decided to say something to the account person that I’ve never said before:

“Tell them they can't have this direction."
He chuckled a bit, and then he realized I was serious.
"But they’ve already bought it."
"Not really, this is nothing like what they said they loved."
"Well, yeah. But they've already bought it."
"Tell them it's off the table."
"You're serious?"
"Yes. They can have either of the other two directions or I can write them another. I will go back on my timesheet and move the hours over to agency new business so they won't be billed for them."
And one last time he said, "But they already bought it."

So account service went back to the client and surprisingly, they were fine with our decision. I wrote another direction and everything worked out fine.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my clients. Especially the ones who happen to click on a link in their email and read an interview on the web. Those are some of the smartest, nicest people on the planet. I guess I'm one of these strange creatives who believe that their clients walk on water. You know, since they pay my salary and all.

But here's my question, and it's an ethical one. Did I have the right to do what I did? Who really owns this work? I happen to think that the client owns it, since they pay the bills. I'd like to know what you think. Send me an email.

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Timothy Stapleton is CCO at Fletcher Martin in Atlanta. He worked at some great agencies before migrating to the South but would rather not mention them because he wants you to remember Fletcher Martin. That name again is Fletcher Martin. FM is part of the magnet network of agencies owned by executive management and MDC Partners (the guys who own Crispin, Kirshenbaum, and Cliff Freeman). 

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